Life as a Visitor
By Angella M. Nazarian
Assouline Publishing, 168 pages, $45.00.
Driven by American interest in the Middle East, the past 10 years have produced a slew of memoirs and novels by Iranian émigrés, especially women. Farideh Goldin, in her essay “Iranian Women and Contemporary Memoirs,” attributes this boom to four main factors: the need to dispel common Western perceptions of Iranians as monolithically fundamentalist or backward; the long oral tradition of women’s storytelling in Iran (particularly life-narratives); the unhinging force of the revolution itself and the resulting emigration, and the impetus to preserve details of life in the Old Country for immigrant children. In a December 2008 Forward article, Michael Kaminer also pointed to the recent trend of uber-confessional graphic memoirs by younger Jewish women whose “raw, revealing autobiographical comics” are “ruthlessly honest” in portraying the most intimate details of these authors’ lives, both visually and textually.
“Life as a Visitor,” Angella Nazarian’s new hybrid photo-essay memoir about her emigration from Iran as a child and her life both before emigration and after, when her family settled in Beverly Hills, Calif., is the latest entry into the fields of both Iranian women’s writing and Jewish women’s memoir. And while Nazarian’s book fits solidly within these subcategories of literature, it fails to achieve the openness and honesty of the graphic memoirs that Kaminer highlights, and avoids addressing the major social, historical or political issues that other Iranian women authors have grappled with in their work.
Memoirs like the popular “Persepolis” series by Marjane Satrapi, “Reading Lolita in Tehran” by Azar Nafisi and “Wedding Song” by Goldin teach us as much about the history of Iran as they do about the authors by addressing larger themes of war, coming of age, veiling, immigration and alienation. Fiction by Iranian-Jewish women like Dalia Sofer and Gina Nahai brings to life the long-standing and intricate relationships between Jews and Muslims in Iran; these writers chart the changes in those relationships, as well, and the complicated interplay between class and religion that takes place between various characters that move through these narratives. Both Muslim and Jewish authors make overt and covert statements about the lives of women in a patriarchal society, giving weight to historic events as well as to stories and details from everyday life.
Nazarian’s “Life as a Visitor” manages to skirt all these topics. Nazarian’s book — part memoir, part travelogue — is centered on very short (three- to six-page) essay-vignettes and poems that have photos and artwork placed alongside the text and explore the author’s life in Iran and Beverly Hills, as well as her extensive travels abroad as an adult. In her preface, Nazarian insists that “this impressionistic format, with prose and poems, best captures the fluidity in my development as a person, which is often nonlinear but interrelated.” Some readers, however, might find this structure disorienting and scattershot.
Visually stunning, Nazarian’s book includes the author’s own family photos and pictures from her trips overseas, and reproductions of artwork by contemporary Iranian artists like Shirin Neshat and Arien Valizadeh, along with arresting but established photos of Iran (architecture, artwork and people) from various photo-agency sources and from Iranian photographers like Mahmoud Pakzad.
The book’s lush, jewel-tone color palette, and the rich decorative borders around the first page of each prose piece, gives this project the decadent feel of a substantial coffee-table book. Graphic memoirs like “Persepolis” are experiments in textual genre-bending that succeed wildly because of their complex conversation between the pictures shown and the stories told. In Nazarian’s memoir, however, it is not always entirely clear what relationship — if any — the visuals have to the text.
A photograph by Valizadeh of a woman covered entirely in a black chador and seated on a sidewalk in Iran sits directly across from the first page of an essay about the teenage Nazarian spotting Marie Osmond shopping in a department store in the Century City Mall in California as a teenager. Nazarian never discusses chadors in the essay with which the photo is paired, nor does she mention them once in the entirety of her memoir. Since the revolution, veiling has become such a hot-button issue in both Iran and the West that, because the garments are shown in photographs throughout the book, Nazarian’s omission seems especially glaring. This omission, though, is in keeping with the tenor of the book, which is more personal than intellectual, more concerned with expository moments of personal growth on the author’s part than it is with socio-historical information that might offer broader insights into Iranian culture.
While Nazarian’s book is visually compelling, the graphic design works in tension with, and to the detriment of, the content. Pull quotes appear in the middle of each prose piece, lending vignettes the flavor of magazine articles rather than book chapters. Similarly, extreme font flourishes become a practical and symbolic obstacle between the reader and Nazarian’s poetry. Italics are traditionally used in contemporary poetry for particular emphasis, or to indicate spoken dialogue. Because all of Nazarian’s poems are printed entirely in italics, they take on a ghostly appearance — as if her verse is being whispered. In addition, segments of her poems — words, phrases or entire lines — are bolded and enlarged for no apparent reason. If the goal was to stress specific aspects of each poem, it’s not entirely clear why these phrases were chosen, as in Nazarian’s poem about a trip to Argentina, titled “Worlds Apart”:
I thought I’d come so far,
yet we were still,
me and the stars,
and all that exists between us.
Nazarian aims to create “two parallel narratives,” which are, as she writes in her preface, “my family’s high-stakes escape from revolutionary Iran, and our ensuing adjustments in the New World.” She wants to do this, she tells us, in order to “explore the vanishing details of my past and my changing identity in the context of my travel experiences.” Although “Life as a Visitor” aspires to present these narratives, she never adequately engages with what continues to be at stake for so many people in Iran or, for that matter, the New World, and ultimately, the book is most successful as a journey of self-realization for the author.
Of what she has learned by traveling, Nazarian writes that she has “developed more expansive ways of relating to the world and, most importantly, to myself.” When she’s not offering cliché realizations, she instead gives readers broad platitudes about topics, like displacement, immigration, death and motherhood. Of the latter, she writes, “For most women, myself included, motherhood is one of the most important and transformative experiences in life.” For these reasons, Nazarian’s prose pieces read like a series of college admissions essays that present moments of surface narrative — summaries of actions, minute scene descriptions, snippets of stiff dialogue — mixed in with moments of obvious epiphanies.
Nazarian has clearly had extraordinary experiences, and this book will acquaint readers both with her creative impulses and with one woman’s stunning immigrant success story. But in the end, it’s not entirely clear who Nazarian’s audience is for this text, beyond her family, friends and immediate community. Hybrid genres appear different because they are self-consciously straining at the bounds of the previously expressible — and using every tool in the author’s artistic arsenal to do that. This book has some of that appearance, but too often it’s disjunctive in a way that points to the author’s creative limitations.
Nazarian fails to provide enough context for readers unfamiliar with Iran, the Islamic Revolution and its fallout, or the Jewish-Iranian émigré community in Los Angeles, to fully inhabit her essays. Her summaries leave us on the outside looking into worlds that she doesn’t allow us to access fully. By the end of her book, the only thing we know is that this project — which might have been cathartic for Nazarian to write — is merely pretty to look at.
Erika Meitner is an assistant professor of English at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.